Disappearing Spaces: Mapping Egypt’s Deserts across the Colonial Divide

by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

In October 2016, government and opposition lawyers met in one of Egypt’s highest courts to battle over the fate of two tiny Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir. When President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi suddenly announced the sale of the islands to Saudi Arabia earlier that year, pent-up rage toward the military regime that took power in 2013 poured out through a rare valve of permissible opposition: a legal case against the deal was allowed to proceed.

In this fight, both sides’ weapon of choice was the map. Reports circulated that state institutions had received orders to destroy maps that indicated that the islands in question were historically Egyptian. In response, the government paraded old atlases before the court proving, it argued, that the sale of the islands would only formalize the islands’ longstanding de facto Saudi ownership. Enclosed in one atlas, published by the Egyptian Geographical Society in 1928, were several maps on which the islands in question were shaded the color of Saudi Arabia. Khaled Ali, the lead opposition lawyer, pointed out that Saudi Arabia did not exist in 1928. The duel of maps continued over several sessions anyway, with Ali’s team accusing the state of intentional obstruction, obfuscation, and blatant fabrication, and the state denouncing some of Ali’s maps as inherently suspect because he had obtained them abroad.

This case drew public attention to the fraught modern history of the nation’s cartography. The Map Room of the Egyptian Survey Authority (Maslahat al-Misaha), where Ali and his associates had first gone looking for evidence, has made and sold maps of Egypt since 1898. Today it abuts the Giza Security Directorate, a mid-century fortress shielded by blocks of concrete barricades and checkpoints. Though the two may be accidental neighbors, their proximity conveys a dictum of the contemporary Egyptian state: maps are full of dangerous secrets.

How does a secret become a secret? In the case of Egypt’s maps, the answer is tangled up in the country’s protracted decolonization. An (almost) blank page tells some of that story. The map in question is of a stretch of land near Siwa Oasis on the edge of the Western Desert, far from the rocky islands of Tiran and Sanafir. Printed in 1930, it features only minor topographical contours in the lower left-hand corner. The rest is white. “Ghayr mamsūḥ,” the small Arabic print reads. “Unsurveyed.”

Siwa Map

This blank space is an artifact of the Desert Survey, a special division of the Survey Authority tasked between 1920 and 1937 with mapping Egypt’s sandy, sparsely populated expanses. (The Western Desert alone comprises more than half of Egypt’s land area beyond the Nile, but is home to a population only one-thirtieth that of greater Cairo.) The Desert Survey’s lifespan coincided almost exactly with the gradual retreat of British officials from the everyday administration of Egypt: it was born just after the 1919 revolution against British rule and dissolved a year after the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that ostensibly formalized an end to occupation. Here decolonization is thus meant not in the comprehensive sense that Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Achille Mbembe have written about, as a cultural and intellectual challenge to Western thought’s insidiously deep claims to universality, but something much more literal: the withdrawal of colonial officials from the knowledge-producing institutions they ran in the colony.

The British cartographers who led the Desert Survey were keenly aware of their impending departure. As they prepared for it, they erected a final obstacle that would leave behind a legacy of paralysis and cartographic secrecy. Repeatedly accusing Egyptians of apathy toward the desert, colonial officials parlayed nescience into ignorance. In doing so, they sowed the seeds of an enduring anxiety among Egyptians over crucial spaces that remained unmapped.

The strident whiteness of the 1930 Siwa map looked different to the receding colonial state than it did to the emergent postcolonial one. To John Ball and George Murray, the successive British directors of the Desert Survey, blank space marked an incomplete but wholly completable project. For the post-colonial Egyptian state, the same blankness was the relic of a project it could not or would not complete, the bitter hangover of projected ignorance.

The Desert Survey’s vision was already more than two decades in the making when Ball was granted his own division of the more than 4000-member Survey Department in 1920. In 1898, colonial officials had commenced the ambitious cadastral survey that would eventually produce the Great Land Map of Egypt—the subject of Timothy Mitchell’s noted essay—and Ball departed for the oases of the Western Desert with his partner, Hugh Beadnell, to search for lucrative mineral deposits. From that point forward, the Survey Department viewed each unit’s work as a step toward total knowledge of every square meter of Egypt in every form and on every scale. It was only a matter of time, officials firmly believed, until the grid they had created at the Survey’s birth was filled in.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, the Survey Authority’s ambitions were directed inward: its cartographers wanted to know what was inside Egypt’s borders, even as sections of those borders remained fuzzy. But the First World War crystallized a broader imperial vision that linked Egypt’s Western and Eastern deserts to Jordan, Syria, and Iraq and saw the management of smugglers, nomads, geology, and development as related challenges directly correlated to the resilience of British rule (Fletcher, British Imperialism and “the Tribal Question”: Desert Administration and Nomadic Societies in the Middle East, 1919-1936; Ellis, Desert Borderland: The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya).

From the moment of the Desert Survey’s founding in 1920, and at an accelerating pitch over the 17 years that followed, British colonial officials justified their continued control of the Desert Survey even as most other institutions changed hands. One way they did this was by depicting survey work as a vocation and not merely a job. As Desert Survey chief John Ball wrote in 1930:

I shall try to keep our little show going and my little band of British surveyors at work in the deserts, but am not sure of success, as it has been said that Egyptians could do it equally well and we are therefore superfluous… but I have used Egyptian effendis in the deserts and I know them. Here and there you can find one really interested in his work, but 999 out of 1000 think only of promotion and pay, and you can’t manage… intrigue when you are hundreds of miles out in the wilderness.

(Royal Geographical Society CB9/Ball, John, letter to A.R. Hinks, February 28, 1930)

Not only did the Egyptian surveyors not know how to do the work the British experts were doing, Ball implied, but they did not want to know. If they did, it was for reasons that were crassly utilitarian by British standards.

Not having the proper expertise was an issue that could be resolved by more training. But by casting the fundamental issue as one of indifference—of not wanting to know, or wanting to know only for wrong, illogical reasons—officials like Ball were implying that even providing more training would not close the gap. Consequently, officials concluded, they would have to remain until they had shaded in the last empty expanses on the desert grid.

Survey authorities, in tandem with their associates in the colonial Frontier Districts Administration, thus articulated a position that held certain kinds of not-knowing to be acceptable, even desirable, and others to signal ignorance. In late 1924, Survey Director John Ball updated the members of the Cairo Scientific Society on the Survey’s progress in mapping the unknown regions of the desert. He reveled at the “gasps” his statistics elicited from an audience shocked at how much remained unknown (RGS CB9/Ball, John, letter to A.R. Hinks, December 19, 1924). Though he smugly reassured them that the unknown would soon vanish, a report published on the eve of independence in 1952 revealed that 43 percent of Egypt had by then been professionally surveyed, 24 percent was roughly known from reconnaissance, and 33 percent was still unknown. All that remained lay in the far Western Desert (George Murray, “The Work in the Desert of the Survey of Egypt,” Extrait du Bulletin de l’Institut Fouad Ier du Desert 2(2): July 1952, 133).

The desert did not disappear after 1952, of course; it came to occupy a central place in development dreams of the Nasser era, dreams that subsequent leaders have revived repeatedly. But the various incarnations of the project, aimed at facilitating the administration of economic development zones, had little in common with the colonial quantification—fetishization, even—of the unknown.

Maps articulate uncertainty more viscerally than the many other paper documents that similarly elude researchers and the public. The result is that vast spaces of the nation still reside primarily in foreign archives – the UK National Archives, the Royal Geographical Society in London, the Institut Français de l’Archéologie Orientale—where even the parties to the Tiran and Sanafir case turned for evidence. The obfuscation that drives us to these archives is not a product only of contemporary authoritarian politics, however; it, too, has a history. The projection of ignorance left a scar, an anxiety which can only be read through its shadows in colonial archives and its conspicuous absence in postcolonial archives.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at

From the Archive: Passage and Place: Loci in Humanist Travel Writing

by Madeline McMahon (November 2015)

12th-century Church of the Sepulchre of Mary, Jerusalem (Wikimedia

12th-century Church of the Sepulchre of Mary, Jerusalem (Wikimedia)

After midday on August 14, 1483, the Dominican friar Felix Fabri and his fellow pilgrims to Jerusalem began to prepare for their celebration of the feast of the assumption of Mary. They constructed a small kind of tent around the altar in the very “place from whence the blessed Virgin was carried off” to heaven after her death and created “a beauteous holy grove,” adorned with “leafy boughs of olive and palm trees, strewed with grass and flowers.” In the evening, incense intermingled with the scent of the branches, and the pilgrims sang “Et ibo mihi ad montem myrrhae.” After the service, a group of Eastern Christians used the same space, although Fabri was unimpressed with their hymns: “they seem to wail rather than to sing.” Nevertheless, the liturgical calendar dictated when both Fabri’s Western Christian companions and their Eastern Christian neighbors celebrated this particular feast. But because they were in Jerusalem, the actual place associated with the Virgin’s death also played a central role in their liturgical celebrations: they circled her sepulchre in a procession and sat vigil around it throughout the eve of her feast (Fabri, Evagatorium, trans. Stewart, 7.193-4).

Later in his journey, Fabri returned to where “Mary departed from this world,” but described it very differently. On a walking tour, Fabri’s group “came at no great distance to another place enclosed with a higher dry stone wall, wherein tradition says that the house of the blessed Virgin stood, wherein she lived a domestic life for fourteen years” (8.328). Rather than singing solemnly and adorning the place with branches, Fabri elaborated on the tradition surrounding the Virgin’s life after the death of Jesus. In fact, his understanding of that tradition is perhaps surprisingly inclusive (although mediated and confirmed by a Christian source, Nicholas de Cusa): “We are told in the Alcoran of Mohamet that she only survived five years [‘after our Lord’s ascension’], and that her years in all were fifty-three, as is said also by Nicholas de Cusa, Book II, chapter xv” (ibid.). The physical location (or locus) of Mary’s house led Fabri to cite two passages (loci) in order to solve—or at least state possible answers to—a chronological conundrum. Two meanings of the Latin word locus, textual passage and physical place, overlapped.

As the center of the liturgical celebration, Mary’s grave might be seen as a lieu de mémoire, a site for formally memorializing a long-ago and otherwise inaccessible event (Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26 (1989), 7-24). But in Fabri’s walking tour, Mary’s house functioned as a kind of commonplace heading on the topic of her life after Christ and death. By analogy, the landscape could become a commonplace book, with each new holy site a potential topical heading to organize various related texts and relevant oral knowledge. Text could be inscribed on the terrain.

A book inflecting the way space was approached was nothing new, of course—that was the essential premise for pilgrimage itself. Petrarch populated his 1358 Itinerarium to the holy land with famous literary figures. He celebrated the cities on route to Jerusalem for being where Vergil wrote the Georgics, or Pliny the Elder died in volcanic ash (trans. Cachey, 10.3). And he assumed that his reader was comparing his itinerary with the words of famous authors ringing in their ears: “It should not surprise you that Virgil in the third book of the divine poem [the Aeneid] apparently placed [Scylla and Charybdis] otherwise. He was describing in fact the voyage of one who was arriving while I the voyage of one who is departing” (12.1). He also expected them to see “everything through the Gospel, which is fixed in your mind as you look” (16.4). But the reader’s familiarity with scripture often meant Petrarch felt he could pass over enumerations of minor holy sites and instead recount classical texts and histories. In contrast to Fabri’s later narrative, Petrarch’s imagined itinerary did not elicit the same references to specific texts, though he referred readers to Josephus for further information on a historical point (16.6). His guide to the holy land was meant to help his reader appreciate the landscape. The itinerary itself only loosely organized the texts that Petrarch alluded to reference to it.

Cyriac of Ancona's drawings of stone carvings on the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Agia Triada, Greece (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. Trotti 373, f. 115r,

Cyriac of Ancona’s drawings of stone carvings on the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Agia Triada, Greece (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. Trotti 373, f. 115r,

Sometimes, though, the landscape could provide textual loci of its own. Cyriac of Ancona (1391 – 1452) traveled for mercantile business from a young age in the Mediterranean and was struck by the remains of classical and (to a lesser extent) Christian antiquity. He wrote six travel diaries, describing how his friends and hosts in Frankish towns and Venetian colonies guided him through fields to inspect “remnants” (reliquiae or monumenta) of antiquity, including ancient temples, floor mosaics, and hundreds of inscriptions (Diary V, trans. Bodnar, II.307 – 9). He believed, as his lifelong friend Francesco Scalamonti wrote, that “the stones themselves afforded to modern spectators much more trustworthy information about their splendid history than was to be found in books” (Scalamonti, Life, trans. Mitchell, Bodnar, and Foss, I.48 – 9).

Nonetheless, Cyriac frequently made use of texts to make sense of objects in the landscape. He identified the iconography of the Parthenon—then dedicated to the Virgin Mary— “from the testimony of Aristotle’s words to King Alexander” (quoted in Brown, Venice and Antiquity, 84). The landscape induced both Fabri and Cyriac to turn to texts, but Cyriac was more concerned with the material buildings and remains than Fabri, who used pilgrimage sites in his account to recount memories or textual loci. Texts made the landscape interesting to Petrarch, but both fifteenth-century travellers toggled back and forth between physical and textual loci to make them speak to each other. Cyriac even replicated the loci in the landscape for his friends, sending drawings and transcriptions of monuments across the Mediterranean. Most of his own manuscripts are now lost—as are many of the inscriptions he copied. But his writings circulated widely through scribal copies in his circle, preserving the landscape that so fascinated him in text.

Madeline McMahon is a 4th-year PhD candidate in history at Princeton University (and a former editor of JHI Blog). She studies the intellectual, religious, and cultural history of early modern Europe. Her dissertation examines episcopacy and scholarship in the Church of England and the Catholic Church in Italy after the Elizabethan Settlement and the Council of Trent, when the ancient institution of episcopacy was reimagined for a changed present.